Selling for a song: Seafood trade buoyed by Easter demand despite coronavirus lockdown

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Seafood suppliers, fish markets and trawlers have been hit hard by the impacts of coronavirus but Queenslanders’ love of seafood and unusually low prices have given the industry a temporary boost.

Key points:

  • An abundance of prawns and the coronavirus lockdown has hit prices
  • Supplier Julie Hanson says she has never seen such low seafood prices
  • The lockdown has been brutal for Queensland’s commercial fishers

Normally seafood suppliers are gearing up for one of the busiest times of the year, but this Easter long queues and huge volumes of pre-orders have been replaced with takeaway services and home deliveries.

Prawn trawler Daryl Davis, based at Shorncliffe on Brisbane’s bayside, said consumers would benefit with freshly caught prawns at the lowest prices he had ever seen.

He said medium to large tiger and green prawns were selling for between $15 to $20 a kilo.

“That’s the lowest prices we’ve ever sold them, they’re going back to 1980 prices,” Mr Davis said.

“We’ve just got to take it — if we don’t take that price, we don’t sell them.”

He said business had picked up in the past two weeks heading into Easter.

“Since late February, early March it’s been a hard time for us all,” he said.

“We’ll get through it, we’ve been through it before.”

The manager of Morgan’s Seafood at Scarborough, Julie Hanson, said record low prices were a result of the volume of ocean-caught seafood and low demand.

“There’s so much product out there and the demand hasn’t been there, we’ve been able to buy the product at cheaper prices and pass it on,” she said.

“I’ve got prawns at only $12.99 a kilo — that hasn’t happened since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for 11 years.”

Delivery, takeaway and drive-through

Many seafood markets have adapted to offer takeaway services, with customers required to stand 1.5 metres apart and pay by card to follow social distancing rules.

Local seafood restaurants and suppliers are accepting pre-orders on wholesale products that can be picked up from stores.

For people who cannot leave home, several outlets have started delivering fresh produce to nearby residents on top of offering a takeaway service.

Some are even offering a drive-through service so customers can call ahead and pick up their order without leaving the car.

In North Queensland, Ingham Road Seafood is operating a drive-through service at the Townsville Showgrounds.

Owner Mark Partland said the set-up had been embraced by the community.

“There’s plenty of product around, but we’ve just got to get it out the door with the spacing.”

Mr Partland said the closure of so many restaurants down had been a big blow for the wholesale side of his business, but retail sales remained healthy as ever.

“It’s really taken me by surprise actually, it’s very strong – I haven’t seen it this strong for a long time in the retail sector,” he said.

“Obviously people aren’t going out to eat, so maybe they’re treating themselves to some seafood as well – and there’s not a lot open.

“We’re quite lucky … and people are taking advantage of us being open and buying up for Easter.”

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In Bundaberg, Red Shed Seafood has markers on the footpath up to the sales window to ensure customers keep a safe distance apart.

Owner Marguerite Conroy Mills said it had been a busy few weeks with high demand for frozen seafood.

“We’re only to have a few people in the shop at a time so that also means we have less staff as well but we’re getting through it as quickly as we can,” she said.

“Everyone still wants their fresh seafood so we’ve been inundated with frozen orders so that people can do a bit of stockpiling.

“There’s two sides to our business, the retail side and the wholesale. The wholesale has been heavily impacted.

“The trawlers have been impacted because they’re not able to sell onto to restaurants and anything that might go for export,” Ms Mills said.

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COVID-19 ‘another blow’ to industry

Last month, agricultural forecaster ABARES predicted a $389 million fall in the value of the Australian fisheries and aquaculture industries to $2.81 billion.

Commercial fishers across Queensland have been hit both by restaurant closures and the shutdown of export markets.

Queensland Seafood Marketers Association president Marshall Betzel said export and domestic markets had plunged.

“We saw the export market for our products, particularly live lobster and live coral trout into Asia, disappear overnight,” he said.

Mr Betzel said while domestic demand had improved in the past few weeks, there was uncertainty about what the future held for the commercial sector long-term.

“Unfortunately, post-Easter we’ll probably see the domestic market reduce even further,” he said.

“The commercial catching sector is under enormous pressure … the morale hasn’t been the best given the fact there’s a lot of uncertainty.

“This has really been just another blow to the industry, but if we can all wait and see how this pans out, hopefully there will be better days to come.

“I’m sure once we’re all out and about and these various measure are reduced, people will get out in droves and we’ll see consumer demand as good as it ever was for Queensland seafood.”

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